KAMPOT, Cambodia (ChurchMilitant.com) - Catholics in Cambodia are rejoicing after the government has returned their 100-year-old cathedral.
The small cathedral, located near the top of a mountain, is currently empty, and there is no active Catholic community in Kampot. It took several years of petitioning the government and the company, who bought the property on the mountain, to give the property back to Catholic use.
Environmental Minister Say Samal declares he will do anything he can to assist Catholics to renovate and preserve the building, saying, "It means that the government recognizes all religions and the people's right to practice their faith."
Gianluca Tavola, of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, noted the local Catholics learned of the government's decision on December 19. He also noted that since there isn't a native Catholic community in the vicinity of the building it will most likely be turned into a shrine where pilgrims from all over Cambodia can visit and pray.
He adds, "Given the beauty of the place, this will be a reference point for pilgrimages and spiritual retreats for the Catholics of Kampot and all of Cambodia, if we can build the necessary structures that is."
The cathedral, dating back to when French colonial forces occupied the Asian country in 1917, is located in southern Cambodia. It was abandoned when the brutal Communist dictatorship known as the Khmer Rouge overtook the country in the early 1970s.
A Portuguese Dominican friar was the first European to bring the faith to the Khmer people in the 16th century. After 10 years, however, he had only baptized one person and left the country declaring his efforts a failure.
The French, however, occupied the country in the late 19th century and brought Catholicism with them. By 1953, there were about 120,000 Catholics, but the numbers dwindled to about 20,000 after the French pulled out.
There are about 75,000 Catholics in Cambodia. Numbers have gone up since the death of Pol Pot in 1988 who vigorously persecuted Catholics when he came to power.
Many of Cambodia's Catholics are actually ethnically Vietnamese, having moved to the country after Communist North Vietnamese arrived as an occupation force in 1971.